If the US election and Brexit referendum have shown us anything, it’s how difficult we find it to disagree. In our polarised climate, a vote isn’t seen as an expression of political preference, but as a barometer of moral character. And as our convictions are reinforced by bias, bubbles and bad logic, we forget how to engage with the other side – all those people we simply see as wrong.
You know, recently it really seems like political discourse has been reduced to little more than demonisation, shaming and name-calling. There’s about seven billion reasons this is awful, but I guess the main one is that this strangles all potential for dialogue. And in fractured times, we need dialogue, ’cause we’ve seen the kinds of clusterfucks that can happen without it.
But before we get into my usual ramblings, let me introduce myself properly:
That said, here’s why Donald Trump will make an awesome President.
Just kidding. This post is about disagreement.
See, I love disagreeing. It’s fun, like a little workout for the brain. It strengthens my arguments while exposing me to different points of view. And I don’t mind sniffing out gaping holes in my reasoning, whenever they’re revealed. To me, changing my mind about stuff is a best-case scenario.
But it’s not all fun and games. Disagreement is actually kind of important to how we live.
Historically, disagreement gave us Greek philosophy – the tradition of refusing to accept agreed truths on blind faith and, instead, to question revealed wisdoms. That led to science, which gave us lava lamps and toothpaste.
It’s also the foundation of Athenian democracy, a system where for the first time ever, every person* got to choose between differing visions for their future. And that gave us all sorts of goodies, like the Enlightenment, liberalism and Trump. I mean Lincoln.
* (well, except slaves and women lol)
Basically, it’s the starting point for the best kind of dialogue – the kind that fixes things.
Yet today it seems we’ve lost the art of disagreement. If someone disagrees with us on an issue we’ve publicly pinned our mast to, it’s no longer just a matter of opinion.
Now they’re just wrong.
Worse, they probably have some deep moral failing to boot. Which we then signal to the world by dishing out nasty labels, demonising those with different outlooks: racists, SJWs, sexists, feminazis, enemies of God, traitors… you name it.
So, how did we get here?
And how do we get out?
This post is a humble recipe for saving the art of respectful disagreement. It isn’t about telling you how to think or who to vote for. I don’t really care about politics.
But I do care about tolerance.
And I’ve found that following these guidelines has truly increased my ability to have human respect even for people whose views I find distasteful:
1. Try to understand why we disagree (and the trickery we use to reinforce our views); and
2. Don’t be a dick.
I’ll say a few things about the first.
I can’t help you with the second.
Heroes in Our Own Story
We, the Good Guys
Are you a bad person?
Sure, you do bad things sometimes. Maybe even knowingly. But those are filed away as momentary weaknesses, lapses in character or judgment. Maybe you had a spike in anger, greed, jealousy or laziness. But it’s not like you’re proud of it or anything. You regret it and work on yourself to be better. That’s got to count for something, right?
Whether we’re fighting against our inner demons or external forces, it always feels like we’re the hero in our own story.
We’re the good guys.
And that implies an ability to tell right from wrong. We might not always apply good in our lives, but we sure as hell can recognise it. So when it comes to big moral issues, what’s right can feel intuitively obvious. In those cases, what does that make those who disagree with us?
Well, wrong I guess.
And that can feel infuriating. Because if right is so self-evident, why would anyone choose to be wrong? Didn’t Socrates himself say that no man chooses to do wrong willingly?
And that’s the paradigm we’ve been seeing with the Trump vote and Brexit. To us, what’s right feels self-evidently on our side. So whether they’re sexist pigs or establishment stooges; brainwashed liberals or ignorant fuckwits; blue-collar scum or elitist snobs, the other side are just… the worst.
But what makes this demonisation of the other side so bizarre is that it comes from a place that implies moral or intellectual superiority. I hate you because I’m better than you, because I care more than you, because I’m a good person.
Exactly the kind of qualities that should enable one to respect opposing views, rather than dousing them with vitriol.
Shouldn’t we, the Good Guys, be the ones open to hearing out the other dudes? No matter how awful some of them might appear to us?
And if we’re the hero in our own story, what role are we playing in other people’s stories?
We, the Bad Guys
The days after the Brexit vote were pretty depressing.
A friend recommended I watch the Noam Chomsky documentary Requiem For The American Dream. He said it would help me make sense of what was happening in Britain, and the world at large. In it, Chomsky pits processes of democratisation (e.g. 60s civil rights protest groups) against systems of oppression (fascism, corporatism, the rich) who try to quash moves towards greater rights for those who have less – less freedom, less money, fewer opportunities.
I nodded along, agreeing with most of Chomsky’s worldview.
But as I watched, I realised there was another way of looking at Brexit.
These forces, trying to maintain the status quo and prevent the masses from having their way… that was us. Me. My lawyer friends, with our fine educations, international lives, nice apartments and our Instagram feeds brimming with photos of beaches, golf courses and prosecco. Now united in fighting for democracy – by protesting against the result of a democratic vote.
So, which was it?
Were Brexit and Trump blows to democracy, by the forces of nationalism, who want certain segments of society to be locked up or deported? Or were they victories for democracy, against the establishment’s stranglehold on money, power and media, and its shaming of dissenting views into silence?
When faced with a question like this, we’re all using bandwidth to prove how our view is empirically correct, as if that should somehow settle the matter.
But what we rarely concede is that if we were in the other guy’s shoes, we might have very different priorities and perspectives.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t real assholes out there, who do just want to shit on everyone else. But they’re on both sides of the divide. We need to distinguish them from those who disagree with us on grounds that are moral, and sometimes even reasonable. Being a bad person is less about what you believe, than why you believe it.
Ultimately, being the Good Guys for real means being tolerant and listening to the other side’s reasons. More importantly, it involves reminding ourselves that many of those we dismiss simply don’t have access to the same facts as us, or just prioritise them differently.
And you know what?
Maybe in their story, we’re the bad guys.
So, why are other people wrong? Because they’re heroes in their own story. Same as us.
What We Know vs What We Think We Know
By putting ourselves in other people’s shoes we start to appreciate different perspectives on the same problem. But the point of seeing things differently isn’t so we end up agreeing – it’s to understand why we disagree. A big part of this is recognising how our personal framework informs our opinions.
A while back we wrote a post on how we live in a deceptive combination of reality and our interpretation of reality. Facts and our perception of facts are not the same thing, and our experiences are coloured by the lens through which we view the world. What’s worse, we then link those perceived truths into neat little narratives, and start to treat those stories as true.
The focus of that post was how this confusion between fact and narrative can affect our self-image and create self-fulfilling prophecies. But the same processes can be applied to our opinions about the external world.
Imagine the whole universe is a blank page. That’s the world of all things knowable by anyone.
Now imagine every time you know something new, it’s like a little dot you place on the page. We call these Fact Dots. Fact Dots are the only things you know. Everything else in the world is hiding in the blank white spaces – because it’s all unknown to you.
But wait – if we’re being totally, 100% honest, the only Fact Dots we can actually put on the page are, well, actual facts.
Not opinions. Not our inner narratives. Not things we’re pretty sure we know.
Nope, just actual facts.
For instance, remember that time Marcia had dreadful news?
Our instinct might be to take the information we just got (that Abelard cheated) and turn that into a Fact Dot. But thinking about it for a second, we realise that’s not quite right.
We may believe Marcia. We might even be justified in believing her. But we don’t really know Abelard cheated. The only thing we actually know about the world is that Marcia said it.
That’s our Fact Dot.
Abelard cheated on Marcia isn’t something we know, it’s just something we think we know. It’s not a real Fact Dot. It’s a Fake Dot.
But hey, maybe Abelard really did cheat on Marcia!
Well, yeah. ‘Cause Fake Dots aren’t necessarily wrong. But because we only think we know them, they’re potentially falsifiable. New information can make our Fake Dots shift, or change completely.
I’m enjoying drawing dots but there’s a point here – this distinction actually matters. Because if we start mixing in our Fake Dots with our Fact Dots, we lose track of the huge difference between what we know and what we just think we know.
Of course, the real problems begin when we start basing narratives on Fake Dots.
After our chat with Marcia, we’ve now begun to see Abelard as a scumbag. It’s like a chain reaction, where we make all sorts of shifts in how we perceive Abelard and stuff that’s linked to him.
But unbeknownst to us, Marcia got it all wrong. Her sources were unreliable. She misheard a phone call. The text she saw on his phone was just a wrong number.
Abelard never cheated, he was actually a really nice guy all along. All our assumptions and stories about poor, innocent Abelard are bullshit. But we don’t know it, so we still interact with him as if they were accurate.
Because we’ve based our convictions on shifty Fake Dots, we’re now out of sync with reality and we don’t even notice.
Essentially, we need to rely on Fact Dots as much as possible. Where we only have Fake Dots to go on, we need to keep an open mind, ’cause they can always end up being wrong.
And falsified Fake Dots aren’t even Fake Dots – they’re just Fuck Dots.
We all know the kind of craziness you get when you build your convictions on Fuck Dots:
So whenever we’re reading a news story, let’s take a few minutes to consider how much of it is based on Fact Dots, and how much on Fake Dots or Fuck Dots.
But here’s another problem – even if we’re super-rigorous and stick to our Fact Dots, we’re still prone to linking them up into some narrative.
Our minds have a natural tendency to see patterns everywhere. It’s how we make sense of the world. Our brains take Fact Dots and tie them all together, drawing sequences and relationships between them. That way, we transform them from cold, neutral facts into meaningful experiences.
Philosophers like David Hume (and a bunch of physicists) even go as far as saying that cause and effect are mental constructs we use to create a sense of coherence between events. Perhaps to avoid the existential horror and confusion of the random chaos that surrounds us… Sigh.
Take these three Fact Dots. Note, these are actual bona fide Fact Dots, not Fake Dots (and certainly not Fuck Dots):
My mind might link those together into a triangle, like this:
Makes sense, right? It’s an understandable sequence, given the Fact Dots available. It’s definitely possible that the triangle is actually there. But until I’ve seen evidence of it, I shouldn’t lose track of the fact that the triangle is just a projection – it’s my running theory at best.
Problem is, most of us will take the projection as the real thing, and start living our lives like there’s an actual triangle there. I might bet money on it, or go and build a house on the hypotenuse.
But what if Marc’s got the same three Fact Dots as me, plus an extra one I didn’t notice?
This guy’s mind is projecting a rectangle where I’m seeing a triangle. And now we’ve gotta argue about whether it’s the triangle or the rectangle that’s real. If I’m a douchebag, I can just ignore this new Fact Dot and keep on living on my imaginary triangle, like an insane hobo lost in some fucked up fantasy world.
Even if I’m honest and willing to change my mind given the new data… I’m still screwed. I’ve just bet all my money on a losing triangle, and my house is in ruins ’cause the hypotenuse I saw beneath it never even existed.
My triangle was a narrative, a story, it wasn’t actually real. But I believed it. Worse – I believed I saw it. I thought I knew it was there. The whole world made sense in light of that triangle. Had someone told me there was no triangle, I’d have treated them like they were nuts. If I cared enough, I might have even reacted with anger – much like some religious people do if you question their particular interpretation of God.
And this was a triangle based on actual Fact Dots! Imagine if it had been Fake Dots or even Fuck Dots instead. There’s no knowing the trouble I’d be in.
This is made worse by the current narrative-over-fact media cycle, where Fact Dots are completely ignored and replaced with Fake Dots. Sometimes even Fuck Dots. And we go along with it because the narratives seem to make sense, or because it’d make us uncomfortable or unpopular to disagree. And besides, who the hell has the time to fact-check anyway?
Point is, we often construct and believe entire narratives, based on what we know or think we know. But there’s infinite facts and experiences out there that, if only we knew them, might entirely undermine our unquestionable truths. So when some asshole comes along with a rectangle where we honestly thought we saw a triangle, we need to avoid the impulse to shut them down and just check our Fact Dots against his.
There’s another aspect to this quagmire of bullshit we’ve somehow lost the ability to notice – the Ideological Lens. We’re prepping a post on this topic (lucky you!) so we won’t go into detail, but let’s keep in mind how our biases also dictate the way we connect our Fact Dots.
Why are other people wrong? Because the narrative we choose isn’t the one they choose.
Our Rigged Arguments
Finally, we get to the part for my fellow logic nerds.
We’ve talked about how we tend to see ourselves as the good guys, how the good guys can tell right from wrong and how that makes people who disagree with us seem like dickbags.
We’ve also talked about how our disinclination to differentiate our opinions from actual facts results in narratives that might be different from those created by others.
Now we’re gonna go through a few ways we rig the game to reinforce our opinions and worldview. These include verbal tricks and faulty logic we’ve all used. ‘Cause let’s face it, when we believe we’re right, it’s a natural instinct to deconstruct the opposing view by making it look wrong.
Rigging Tactic #1: Confirmation Bias
There’s a bunch of reasons we assume we’re right. The fact we live in these self-contained bubbles of people who live and think like us is a biggie. Most of my friends are from a similar background, so they’re bound to have been exposed to similar data to me. They don’t really question my beliefs too much. Our little social media echo-chambers also don’t help, exposing us to the types of people, sources and opinions we already agree with. This is just a new media-based version of confirmation bias, which is defined as:
the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.
We’ve already discussed it here, but just note how many of the supposed facts we hear in our chosen news sources and our friends’ retweets aren’t Fact Dots at all, but are actually mostly Fake Dots and even Fuck Dots. So we shouldn’t go around basing our opinions on those without a little check. No time to do that? That’s cool. As long as we stay open to changing our mind if presented with new info, we’re good.
Rigging Tacting #2: Making our assumed truths the basis for debate
I was recently discussing the election on Anchor.fm, where a friend was venting her rage at the result. I asked her the reasons for being so inconsolably furious.
Her reply was indignant: what the fuck else can I be when half the the country basically voted for Hitler?
It hurts me that we’re at the point where this isn’t immediately obvious, but damn, that’s bad logic. She’s taking her opinion (Trump is basically Hitler), and she’s smuggled it in as a given fact. And now that’s the basis for the whole discussion. If she’s right, then of course she’s furious. How could she not be? I’d be furious too if we’d voted for Hitler. But if she’s wrong that Trump is basically Hitler, then of course she might be overreacting.
The problem of course is that her opinion is never questioned, and is taken instead as a self-evident axiom. Similar to this is the crystal-ball syndrome, where everyone is adamant that they know exactly what the outcomes of a scenario will be.
When potential outcomes are seen as 100% certainties rather than just feelings or predictions, it’s no wonder we end up treating voting like a pop quiz rather than what it is: a democratic expression of preference. Might as well substitute all ballots with something like this:
Rigging Tactic #3: Straw-man Arguments
This means refuting a version of the other side’s argument that the other side never actually presented. It generally entails distorting the other side’s points beyond recognition by adding something you know will make their views look bad. Sadly, if your audience isn’t paying attention, it usually works. Especially because straw-manning typically involves accusations that will cause opponents to panic and capitulate, just to exonerate themselves from the charges as quickly as possible.
Rigging Tactic #4: The Yes But Approach
Sometimes you see people finding flaws in the opposing view, while dismissing or justifying inconsistencies in their own. I call this the yes, but approach. For instance, you might attack Clinton on moral grounds by pointing out allegations of corruption on her part, while minimising Trump’s own amoral conduct. The problem with this type of argument is that it doesn’t actually prove anyone right or wrong. All it does is show what issues you care more about and which you are willing to consider irrelevant.
This is totally legitimate by the way. We’re allowed to care less about sexism than corruption, or to give more of a shit about mocking the disabled than about uh, coughing fits I guess? What’s not legitimate is acting like our way of weighing factors is the only way to do it.
Rigging Tactic #5: Devious comparisons
So I came across this Facebook post that said (I paraphrase):
what this election tells us is that America would rather get behind a rapist than a white woman.
Hey man, this one should be pretty obvious. We can’t compare the best aspect of your side with the worst aspect of the other side (especially if you’re distorting it) and get to think we made a valid point. Fairer comparisons would be: America would rather get behind a rich white man than a rich white woman or America would rather get behind someone accused of sexual harassment than someone accused of corruption.
Rigging Tactic #6: Narrative Over Fact
While the above tactics can be used in a consciously manipulative way, they are frequently deployed by people who are genuinely honest, including ourselves. It’s just that we don’t always catch ourselves doing it. Other times, we can fall into the realm of dishonesty and outright lying.
When you’re entirely convinced you’re fighting the good fight, you can be tempted to adopt an end justifies the means strategy and fabricate evidence to support your argument. This is the Narrative Over Facts approach, where you share a story about some outrageous abuse that never happened. Because it’s bound to be happening somewhere, you might believe you’re actually doing good by bringing attention to the issue. Unfortunately, it’s still lying.
These tricks all involve some form of devious affirmation of our beliefs, either by making them axiomatic or by damaging the other side’s arguments using less than legitimate means. So what it all comes down to is this:
Why are other people wrong? Because we rig the game from the start.
All of the above – demonising our opponents, taking our cognitive frameworks for granted and undermining opposing viewpoints – have something in common. They stop us from engaging with what the other guys have to say.
I know it sucks, but sadly we can’t have dialogue without actually listening.
At least a little.
To end this massive nonsense, I believe there really is a way to fix the crappy state of dialogue in our society today. And it begins with looking within and recognising our own biases and implicit assumptions. Fixing ourselves, before we try to fix others.
Our ability to disagree meaningfully depends on our willingness to acknowledge different perspectives, and to honestly question our own beliefs every step of the way. It’s not enough to pay lip-service to this concept (I hear you, but…). No. We need to be truly open to having our minds changed – there’s no shame in that.
That’s what dialogue is all about. There’s a thesis, we present our challenge to it and through the interaction of these ideas, we all get a little closer – to the truth, and maybe even to each other.